A misfired pistol and a brush with history

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Carroll McKibbin, guest columnist

On the morning of Sept. 5, 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and I were both in Sacramento, California. But for very different reasons. I was invited to a breakfast meeting with President Gerald Ford. She planned to kill him.

As dean of the Cal Poly School of Business and Social Sciences, I received an invitation to the Host Breakfast, an annual event sponsored by Sacramento business leaders. The governor of California traditionally supplies the major address, but this year President Ford assumed that role.

While driving to California’s capitol city the day before, I learned on my car radio President Ford would arrive on Air Force One in the evening and stay overnight at the Senator Hotel. I had already made a reservation at the historic hotel across the street from the capitol grounds and smiled at the thought of sharing a lodging with the president of the United States.

I had no idea I would be walking into the pages of history the next day.

• • •

Squeaky Fromme, a member of the infamous Charlie Manson gang, was not charged in their 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Fromme demonstrated outside Manson’s Los Angeles trial and showed her dedication to him by serving time in jail rather than testify for the prosecution. After the diabolical cult leader was convicted and sent to Folsom Prison, Fromme moved to Stockton, California, to be near him.

Squeaky Fromme selected a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol for her assassination attempt. She then sought information on the president’s movements while in Sacramento. Those details were not hard to find.

“President in Town” the Sacramento Union proclaimed in a huge banner headline. An inset beneath provided President Ford’s minute-by-minute schedule and routing, a perfect blueprint for an assassin. The notice began with:

“President Gerald Ford will depart his overnight hotel, the Senator, at 7:25 a.m. and be driven in a three-minute motorcade to the Community Center where he will deliver a 20-minute speech to the annual Sacramento Host Breakfast.

Ford will return to the Senator after the address, and then walk across the street to the Capitol for a 30-minute meeting with Governor Jerry Brown.”

• • •

I arrived at the Senator Hotel in the early evening, went out for dinner, and then purposely lingered in the hotel’s reception area awaiting the president’s arrival. I wasn’t alone for the long wait as the lobby filled with welcoming officials, reporters, photographers, and curiosity seekers.

A police motorcycle escort, sirens screaming, announced the president’s arrival some hours later as they led his long, black limousine to the hotel’s front entrance.

Ford stepped out of the automobile surrounded by several Secret Service agents and walked into the hotel lobby where flashbulbs turned the dimly lighted room into midnight sunshine. Agents cordoned off a walkway for the president, and with a large smile and several waves to the crowd he disappeared into a waiting elevator.

The next morning I walked the several blocks to the Community Center for the 8 a.m. breakfast. I was fortunate among the large crowd to find my name card at a table in front of the dais where President Ford and Governor Brown later took their seats.

I recall no details of Ford’s speech, but remember the audience being required to stay seated at the end of the meeting until after the president’s departure. When allowed to leave I hustled back to the Hotel Senator to pack and beat the 11 a.m. checkout deadline.

In the meantime, Squeaky Fromme, wearing a loosefitting red dress and matching floppy bandanna on her head, arrived among the throng on the well-publicized presidential walking path from the Hotel Senator to the capitol building. A hidden holster containing a loaded .45 pistol was strapped to a thigh of the prospective assassin.

Upon reaching the hotel elevator bank, a Secret Service agent stopped me. “Please step aside,” he said. “You’ll have to wait a few moments to use the elevator.”

I learned the reason for the wait when the door opened and a smiling President Ford emerged. I extended my hand and greeted, “Good morning, Mr. President.”

The square-jawed Ford shook my hand and replied, “Nice to see you.” He then moved on with an agent on each side.

As I had awaited the president’s arrival in the elevator, so Squeaky Fromme waited for him in a crowd along the capitol grounds sidewalk. And just as I had extended my hand to the president, she did likewise — but with a Colt .45 aimed point blank at his midsection.

Squeaky pulled the trigger.

“Click!”

The gun did not fire.

Agent Larry Buendorf leapt on Squeaky Fromme and wrested the weapon from her grip. Only the intended assassin’s ignorance of operating the pistol saved President Ford’s life. She had not moved the cocking slide to push a bullet into the firing chamber.

Meanwhile, when I flipped on my room television for a weather report, a frantic broadcaster interrupted the program. “There’s been ... uh ... uh ... assassination attempt on President Ford on the ... uh ... capitol grounds,” he stammered.

I bolted out of my room, down the elevator, and across the street. A phalanx of policemen were pushing back the crowd to rope off the crime scene, while others crawled in the grass looking for evidence.

The president and Squeaky Fromme had been rushed away, Ford to the protection of the capitol building and a handcuffed Fromme in the back seat of a police car.

Still aware of the checkout deadline, I returned to the Hotel Senator and found the entrance blocked by a policeman. “Sorry, sir,” he said. “We have to seal off the hotel for further investigation.”

“But I am staying in this hotel,” I protested. “I have to check out within 15 minutes.”

“Show me your key and I’ll let you in,” the sympathetic sergeant replied.

I did so and soon shared an elevator with two Secret Service agents. “Now we have to search all the rooms,” one muttered to the other.

Concerned I might be held up again while my room was searched, I packed quickly, checked out of the hotel, and left for my home in San Luis Obispo. Squeaky Fromme, who came within a misfired pistol shot of joining the likes of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, went another direction. Convicted under a law passed after the murder of John F. Kennedy that made attempted assassinations of presidents a federal crime, Fromme spent 34 years in federal prisons before being paroled in 2009.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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